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The March to the Sea

by Ron Forseth


            For spring break, Randy and I had backpacked Catalina Island two years ago and shared the Final Four last year.  What would it be this year?  A four-day ride from Arizona to the Pacific?  A return to Catalina?  I was finding it difficult to set aside that much time from a busy schedule.  What might we accomplish in a single day before spring break was over?  A twenty-mile walk from Escondido to Carlsbad?  That might have been a good idea but at the time it seemed too short—less than something I’d accomplished earlier with a full pack on my back.  A thirty-mile walk?  Nah.  Let’s let out the stops and shoot for forty miles in one day!  At just fourteen years old, Randy said, “I’m game.”  Rachel shrewdly passed on the opportunity!

            I’d heard of various walks for the cure to cancer and stumped on what purpose-driven idea we might attach to our adventure.  Our longtime friends headed to Asia came to mind.  They were going through the strenuous process of preparing for a move to Asia, seeking funds to start a Career Center in India.  Having gone through a similar process eighteen years earlier, I felt it was a direct connect to seek per-mile-donations from friends around the country.  Naturally, our friends were pleased with the idea—and more than twenty friends pledged over $1,100 for our friends.  Pete, Tim, and Scott carefully configured their donations so that their whole pledge would only happen once we reached the finish line.  This would prove to have a motivating effect on me.

            San Vicente sits over forty miles inland, six miles beyond Ramona.  It had a lodge we could stay at the night before.  So, that was it.  Tuesday night, Carol dropped us at the starting point and we sacked out around 9:30 p.m. in anticipation of an early start.  The alarm chased us out of bed at 5:00 a.m.  We ate some beef jerky, filled our “Camelbacks” with water and Crystal Light, and headed out under the cover of night at 5:42.  For about half an hour Randy’s headlamp guarded our safety as we trudged uphill toward California’s Highway 78.  The tranquil morning twilight lit our path well before the 6:44 sunrise.  The silhouettes of the mountains created pleasant wisps of Colorado.

            We arrived by 8:00 a.m. in Ramona and treated ourselves to a couple of fresh blueberry buttermilk donuts—and the clerk at the small store generously filled our Camelbacks with free flavored water from the fountain.  Up until then, we were ahead of schedule and feeling pretty good about ourselves.  Keep that up and we’d be standing in the sand watching the sunset.

            Beyond Ramona we started our descent to sea level, the steepest drop of our journey.  Highway 78 was narrow and the going was far more difficult than we’d anticipated.  The road was winding, the cars flew by, and at times there was no shoulder on either side of the road.  The most dangerous parts were on the curves where a pedestrian and two passing cars simply couldn’t occupy the same point on the road.  On a blind corner, a car would have to veer and either hit the oncoming vehicle or swerve the other way, making windshield bugs out of us.  Because the road was made for cars, we took responsibility for road safety and moved out of the way for oncoming cars.  On many occasions we’d have to step across the road barrier on the right, steadying our feet to avoid a tumble down a 70% grade—more or less a cliff dropping hundreds of feet below.  We counted six vehicles crushed at the bottom of the canyon.  On this stretch where we anticipated the fastest progress due to a downhill momentum, we actually clocked our slowest pace.  By the time we reached the orange tree groves at the bottom of the valley we were far behind schedule—and showing signs of weariness.

            Randy complained of pain in both knees and had rolled each ankle along the way.  At Mile 17 he mentioned a doubt that he would be able to make it.  He said he’d never walked twenty miles in a day so quitting at the twenty-mile mark would still be an accomplishment.  (Fourteen miles was Randy’s previous record and mine was twenty-two).  I agreed to let him stop whenever he chose and said we could call Mom to come get him.  I myself continued to be motivated by Pete, Tim, and Scott’s pile of money sitting on the beach twenty-three miles ahead.  Honestly, my pride was at stake because many eyes were on us, wondering if we had it in us to make it forty miles in a day.

            In another mile or two Randy commented that twenty-five miles sounded like much more of an accomplishment than twenty so he’d try for that.  After a few more minutes, he said he wanted to make it twenty-six miles so that he could complete the distance of a marathon.

            With our Camelbacks almost empty, the bunches of oranges hanging on the trees to our left and right were rather tempting.  I had heard that they were carefully guarded and taking any would be considered a crime.  We resisted taking any, even from the tens of thousands of oranges lying on the ground beneath the trees.  Before long, my craving got the best of me.  I crossed the road and greeted an immigrant worker standing on a ladder harvesting a fresh crop.  I asked “Alberto” for permission to have a couple, signaling my request across the language barrier with two fingers.  He eagerly nodded yes and allowed me to pick them myself.  I took his picture (see the Album) and limped back across the road with the citrus treat.  We peeled them by hand and enjoyed the juicy, sour taste.

            We were about half done with our oranges when we noticed a sheriff’s car ahead on the left.  The officer seemed to be looking right at us.  I crossed the road and continued toward the squad car, confident in our justified possession of the oranges.  When I approached the car I noticed a demoralized woman in the back seat.  The friendly sheriff showed no sign of concern about us or our oranges.  He was very attentive to his environment, scanning the groves for something—likely someone.  He did take the time to say that we were still three to four miles from the San Diego’s Wild Animal Park and 10-12 miles from Escondido.  Randy and I were dumbfounded at his estimates and disappointed that our own estimates were so far short.  The steep, windy, narrow road had greatly slowed us down and distorted our perception of distance.  But we trudged on.

            Before long we ran into two more sheriff’s vehicles, one a paddy wagon-type van on the side of the road,  another weaving between the trees in the grove below.  He was chasing another vehicle which eventually stopped, with the driver surrendering to the officer.  The paddy wagon officer greeted us warmly and could hardly believe we were walking from that point all the way to Carlsbad.  I was beginning to hardly believe it myself.

            We did manage to get to the Wild Animal Park but our water was gone by then.  The glaring sun was taking its toll on our body hydration.  Still, we weren’t willing to march up the steep, long entrance to the park as we didn’t want to add still more to the twenty-three-mile distance still before us.  But our thirst was a growing concern.  Going beyond the park, we saw a lone house near the road.  Like an oasis in the desert, it teased our thirst.  The spigot on the side of the house pulled us across the road.  The beautiful home looked newly-constructed, making us wonder if anyone had even moved in yet.  Randy and I rounded the garage and rang the doorbell at the front door.  No answer.  No one home.  Decision time.  Fill up or trudge on.  We decided to fill up.  The faucet flowed generously into our Camelbacks and we drank a bunch of water as well.  It was so encouraging to have enough water to see us into Escondido and the populated segment of our walk.

            We crossed the road and started up a very long hill, the steepest we faced on our march.  After a half mile or so, I glanced back and noticed a woman now standing in the driveway of our “oasis.”  She had a cell phone to her ear and looked very stressed.  Uh oh.  I knew that we had spooked her but I wasn’t able to ascertain whether it was her husband she was calling, or the police.  It was the police.  I gestured an embarrassed wave and to my surprise she signaled back with an energetic wave.  Not knowing what else to do and not wanting to add another mile, we continued up the hill.  Before long, a large SUV pulled ahead of us on the road, covering the shoulder so we couldn’t pass without leaving the road.  We stepped aside passing the passenger side of the vehicle.  The window was open and a woman was looking out at us.  She was smiling.

            I humbly asked, “Was that you?”

            She said, “Yes, I was calling the police.  I’m sorry I did that but when I went upstairs to look out to see who it was, you disappeared and I got scared.”

            “You should have called the police.  I understand why you were afraid.  I am so sorry,” explaining what we were up to and that we did ring her doorbell to ask for permission.  She was confused why the police hadn’t come and I conjectured that it was because we had already befriended three sheriffs along the way.  (They probably figured they had bigger fish to fry than a dad and his boy poaching a few quarts of water.)

            Ali was completely gracious and asked if there was anything she could do for us.  “Do you need any water?” she volunteered.

            With a grin I said, “You already gave us some.”

            Ali was a beautiful mother in her twenties with two wide-eyed kids in the back seat.  To Ali’s credit, this incident was a real highlight on our journey.

            As we rounded the top of the hill, I told Randy we still had about twenty-one miles to go.  He responded with a simple, “I’m in.”  His confidence had crystallized and we began to enjoy the anticipation of finishing together.

            It was about three o’clock in the afternoon.  As we made it to the intersection of Escondido’s Grand and Ash, we knew we’d cracked the halfway mark with eighteen miles to go.  A few blocks later we encountered a McDonald’s and opted for an early dinner.  It was an Angus burger for me and two double cheeseburgers for Randy (no onions).  We split a large fry.  Sometimes you have to hand it to Mickey Dee’s.  The food tastes good.

            We crossed Interstate 15 on Washington Street and found a secluded patch of grass that prompted Randy to request time for a ten-minute nap.  I gladly approved and used the time myself to call my friend with an update on our progress.  I then woke Randy up and we continued along North County’s delightful “Inland Rail Trail,” a paved path paralleling the east-west Sprinter train route.  It was easier going and a welcome flat surface.

            The trail soon passed under Highway 78 and intersected with San Marcos Boulevard.  10 miles to go.  At about 7:45 p.m. Carol met us at Panda Express and we had a light, second dinner.  Her hand-squeezed lemonade and fresh- made cookies were the best.  Randy and I dumped our Camelbacks into the back of our Honda CRV, changed socks, put on fleeces, and headed out for the final nine-mile descent to the sea.

            We limped along the last stretch but we finished our day as it had begun—under the cool cover of night with headlamps lighting our way.  At 11:49 p.m. we reached the lifeguard stand at Carlsbad State Beach.  18 hours, 7 minutes, 40 miles and some 85,000 steps later, we accomplished our goal.

            Pete, Tim, Scott, Carol (!), and all our other backers:  Thanks for the encouragement.  I truly doubt we would have made it without your support.


Afterword:  As of this writing, Randy’s back in action playing soccer and riding his bike.  My knees are better though my ankles are still swollen and my feet well blistered (I'll spare you the pictures!).  The purpose-driven fun has been tremendously worth it.  More than $1,100 has been pledged for our friends.